When patrons look at porn, librarians have a ‘tough needle to thread’

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Sue Hoadley, director, has not had any complaints about patrons viewing pornography in the Westerlo Library. At a previous job, she had, and in those cases, she found that walking up near the “suspicious patron” to do some shelving or other library work often would cause the person to leave, “if they felt they had something to hide.”

Public library patrons who upset others by using computers to visit pornographic websites force local library staff to make hard choices between freedom of information and the interests of the community.

Additionally, some federal funds to libraries require filters to be installed on computers. Some local libraries have turned down those funds because, as Bethlehem’s library director put it: “The trustees and administration are more concerned about intellectual freedom than they are about the scarce dollars our library would be eligible for.”

At Guilderland, which has filters only in the children’s section, if the staff hears complaints, the library’s policy is to speak to the patrons who are viewing the pornography and ask them to stop, said Timothy Wiles, the library’s director. Staff has had to do this just two or three times in his four years at the library.

At the Altamont Free Library, it might happen as often as every six months, said Director Joe Burke, who called balancing the right of freedom of information against the rights of other users as “a tough needle to thread.”

The Berne Public Library has had this situation just once, according to Director Judy Petrosillo. She said that she “had a conversation with the patron and explained that the content was visible to other library patrons including children” and “asked him to refrain from visiting these websites, since others could see his computer screen.”

He agreed to stop, she said; that was the only instance in eight years at the library’s current site, although there was also one instance at the former site in the town hall, probably about eight years ago, Petrosillo said.

Voorheesville Library Director Gail Sacco said that her library does not have a policy of prohibiting pornography. “We feel it’s not our place to monitor what people see,” she said. Staff at the library would, however, intervene if a patron complained about another patron’s use of the computer.

Wiles himself has had to speak to two different patrons, he said. In one case, the man stopped looking at the material immediately, seemed a little embarrassed, and has not been seen in the library since.

In the other instance, Wiles said, searching for the right word, the man seemed “defiant is a strong word, but not really pleased with me for having asked to stop.” Out of a concern for the safety of the staff and the patrons, he said, Wiles telephoned the Guilderland Police, who came and talked with the patron privately.

“And he hasn’t been back, either,” Wiles said.

Geoff Kirkpatrick, director of the Bethlehem Public Library, said it happens “extremely rarely” there, adding, “I haven’t personally had an incident in quite a long time.” He said the ubiquity of smartphones means that people now have more access to the internet and that people who choose to look at sexually-explicit material are able to do so in private, “as they should.” He said he has seen “a significant decrease” in this problem in recent years.

Sue Hoadley of the Westerlo Library says there have not been any complaints about pornography in the seven years that she has been director.

In other libraries where she worked previously, Hoadley said, when there were complaints — “more suspicions that the patron was viewing something not quite right” — she took a non-confrontational approach. “I found that, if I started shelving books (or some other library activity) very near the suspicious patron, they would get up and leave — if they felt they had something to hide.”

Porn and the First Amendment

Even the United States Supreme Court is not able to define what is obscene, said James LaRue, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.

The Child Internet Protection Act of 2000 says that schools and libraries that receive federal funding must filter their software to make it impossible to access three kinds of materials that are illegal, LaRue said: child pornography, obscenity, and material that is “harmful to minors.”

Child pornography is the only one of those three categories, LaRue said, that is often quite clear and unmistakable. LaRue said that he knows many librarians who have called police when they have seen patrons accessing child pronography in the library, since viewing it is a crime.

While there is a legal definition for obscenity, he said, it is murky.

LaRue quoted Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who, in 1964, famously said of pornography, which has no legal definition, “I know it when I see it.”

“It’s mushy,” LaRue said, adding, “It’s not always easy to judge.”

What most librarians do, when a patron complains that someone else is viewing objectionable materials, LaRue said, is, first, investigate, and then, if the material is indeed offensive, ask the patron to stop and, if necessary, ask the patron to leave.

Ejecting patrons for this reason is no different, he said, than ejecting them for making too much noise or causing another kind of disruption.

Investigating after a complaint is crucial, he said. He ran a library in Colorado for many years before joining the American Library Association, and often fielded complaints. One, he said, was that a man was looking at indecent images of “the male sexual member.” LaRue went up to talk with the patron, and the man was looking at medical diagrams, because he was having a vasectomy the next day.

In another case, he said, a patron claimed someone else was watching bestiality;  he went over and saw that it was a sheep-shearing video.

Other of his examples were more commonplace. “I would go over and often it really isn’t. It’s perfume advertisements, women’s volleyball, or mainstream movies and TV shows,” he said.

“So you can see how it’s easy to get things wrong,” he said.

Most people use the library appropriately, he said, and use the computers for writing letters, sending email and using social media, doing research, and looking for jobs.

Often, a library computer may be a patron’s only source of access to the internet, and today, more than ever, access to the internet is necessary, he said.

“But if a patron is doing something that harasses somebody else, that makes it impossible for them to use the library, we’re going to investigate,” he said.

The ALA’s stance is not that people should be free to look at whatever they please in the library, he said.

Instead, he said, “Most librarians take it seriously, the idea that we’re going to supervise public space, but that supervision doesn’t get down to the level of intrusiveness, where we watch every single page that you’re looking at.”

LaRue said he is amazed at how angry people sometimes get at libraries, when the problem is not libraries, but people misbehaving in them.

He concluded, “Librarians have to walk this very careful line between a murky legal environment where we want to ensure that people have the right to access information but where we sometimes need to confront harassing or abusive behavior and take action and kick people out of the library.”

Guilderland

Guilderland Public Library policy is silent on the specific issue of pornography, although its policy on internet use states that it can terminate a patron’s internet session if it is deemed to be disruptive. The two instances with pornography are the only times the library has terminated internet sessions, Wiles said.

“We don’t censor what people look at, unless there’s a complaint,” he clarified.

Indeed, the Guilderland policy states that library staff is not responsible for the suitability of content viewed on the internet: “In addition to a wealth of tools and resources otherwise unobtainable, the Internet also permits access to information which some may find objectionable or disturbing. Since the Internet is a constantly changing environment, it is not possible for the Library to select or supervise the content. Therefore, all users are advised that Guilderland Public Library cannot be held responsible for security, accuracy, authenticity, or suitability of content.”  

That same policy, though, also states, that “the Library reserves the right to end an Internet session if it is deemed disruptive.”

When staff is going to confront a patron, Wiles said — and they sometimes need to for reasons that have nothing to do with pornography — they typically go in pairs. “It’s just kind of nice to have a second opinion, slash witness, slash someone who can make a phone call if they need to,” he said.

Wiles said he takes a lap around the inside of the library about five times a day, because he likes “to get the vibe of people using the library.” Initially, he wasn’t looking for pornography but, since those two incidents, he does tend to glance at what is on the screens, and, “Thankfully, it’s usually Facebook or other some of the other common social-media sites, or people working on getting a job.”

Altamont

The policy at the Altamont Free Library, by contrast, does directly prohibit sending, receiving, or displaying “text or graphics that may reasonably be construed as obscene or disruptive by Library Staff or patrons.”

Burke said that this “leaves some wiggle room” for interpretation.

Generally, the way he will handle this situation is to say to the patron viewing the objectionable material, “There are other people present, and we need you to consider other people when you are making choices about what to view.”

The library outlines, in its patron-conduct policy, the steps that staff can take. After speaking with the patron, if the behavior doesn’t cease, the staff can ask the patron to leave. If the patron refuses, staff can treat the situation as trespassing and call police for assistance.

Burke noted that viewing pornography would not be treated any differently than any disruptive behavior. “It would be the same thing, if someone were fighting in the library, for example, or screaming,” he said. “If they didn’t stop, we would tell them to leave, and then, if we told them again, we would call the police.”

“We have never had to go beyond Step 1, in the three years I’ve been here,” Burke said.

Told about Guilderland’s policy of having two staff members speak to a patron together, Burke said, “Most of the time, our employees — generally it’s me — there’s only one of us here at a time. So, unfortunately, that would not be an option for us.”

Bethlehem

Patrons found to be using the internet-access computers in violation of the policy forfeit their use for the rest of the day, Kirkpatrick said.

Depending on patrons’ response — if they are angry, and most aren’t, he said — they would be asked to leave the library for the rest of the day.  

“Obviously,” Kirkpatrick added, “if things escalated we'd call the police. We have certainly called the police but I can't remember it ever being about someone viewing something inappropriate on the internet.”

Voorheesville

Sacco said that there have not been any instances at Voorheesville of a patron being asked to stop viewing.

The library’s computers are not filtered, she said, because the library endorses the Freedom to Read and the Freedom to View statements of the American Library Association.

“It is in the public interest for publishers and librarians to make available the widest diversity of views and expressions, including those that are unorthodox, unpopular, or considered dangerous by the majority,” says the Freedom to Read Statement in part.

The staff at the Voorheesville Public Library follows the Library Bill of Rights, which Sacco described as a core statement developed by the ALA and endorsed by the Voorheesville library’s board.

The Library Bill of Rights says, in part: “Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.” It also says, “Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.”

If a patron whose internet use was bothering someone else was not breaking the law and not breaking library policy, Sacco said, “We have no basis to ask them to leave or to ask them to stop, other than to say, ‘This is offensive to this person; is there a way to resolve this?’”

Everyone has their own values, she said. “Our democracy’s built on the freedom of information — the transparency — and also the respect for one another.”

Sacco said that, porn aside, the question of what is offensive is highly personal and ever-changing. She said she remembered a children’s picture book from the days when she was in library school that was very shocking for its time, because it showed children learning to use the toilet. “I think it was ‘Once Upon a Potty,’” she said. “Now there are probably 100 children’s books about toilet training.”

She recently looked over an annual document, State of American Libraries, that lists the top 10 banned books across the country for that year. Some of the books on the list, she said, have won awards. She noted one, “I am Jazz,” is a children’s book that portrays a transgender child.

Some people might find the book valuable, and others might find it offensive, said Sacco.

The role of the library, she said, is not to pass judgment on the people who find it valuable or the people who find it offensive but to serve as a place where groups that have different viewpoints can learn and grow.

It’s not just the internet, Sacco said; people can sometimes be offended by books and magazines. There are people, she said as an example, who find the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue offensive.

Berne

The Berne Public Library does not have a current policy about pornography, said Petrosillo, who added that she is currently in Maryland, visiting family, without access to library materials. She said, “There may be one buried in the books but I won’t have access to that information until my return to work on Thursday,” after the newspaper’s deadline.

Petrosillo, like Voorheesville’s Sacco, also referred to the ALA’s Library Bill of Rights, saying that it states that “books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves.”

Westerlo

Westerlo’s wifi and internet-use policy doesn’t mention pornography specifically, Hoadley said. “Rather than attempt a comprehensive list of everything ‘not to do,’ we address it more generally,” she said, “by stating, ‘All users are expected to use the library’s wireless access in a legal and responsible manner, consistent with the educational and informational purposes for which it is provided. All library rules and policies apply to wireless access from our facilities. The library reserves the right to deny wifi access to patrons who violate our policies.”

Hoadley added that the library’s laptop-computer loan policy says, “The library’s laptop computers may not be used to engage in illegal activities or to disturb other patrons. Failure to comply with the library’s wifi/internet-use policy, patron code of conduct, and other applicable policies may result in loss of computer and/or library privileges.”

Rensselaerville

Kimberly Graff, director of the Rensselaerville Library, says she has not had any complaints from patrons about pornography and that the library does not have a specific policy about viewing porn, but follows the Library Bill of Rights.

Filters required for funding

Libraries that receive federal E-rate funding are required to place filters on their public-use computers, to block images of “certain material from being accessed through the Internet,” according to the website of the American Library Association.

E-rate is the more common name for the Schools and Libraries Program, a federal program that provides discounts to help schools and libraries get affordable telecommunications and internet access.

Filters have two problems, said LaRue of the ALA: overblocking and underblocking. As an example of overblocking, he said, patrons will say that filters block out sites that advocate for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) rights, but will allow access to anti-gay sites.

As an example of underblocking, he said, it’s possible to sit down in front of “any filter system in America,” type in sexual words in Spanish instead of English, and immediately bypass the filter.

In addition, he said, the Supreme Court has ruled that, while libraries have to put these filters on in order to receive federal funds, the filters can be taken off at the request of any adult patron.

So, do adults have the right to view pornography in the library, he asks rhetorically. His answer: “The law continues to be kind of murky about that.”

There are filters on the computers in the children’s section of the library, but none on the computers in the adult section, Wiles said of Guilderland’s library.

Altamont’s computers have no filters, said Burke. “We do not receive E-rate funding,” he said.

If libraries do receive E-rate funding, there is a stipulation in federal law that they have to install some form of filtering, he said, adding, “But that doesn’t apply to us.”

Voorheesville’s Sacco said that the board had decided to give up part of its E-rate funding because it did not want to place filters on its computers. She was not sure if the library still received any funding through the program.

Bethlehem’s Kirkpatrick said there are “absolutely not” any filters on the library’s computers for public use, and that the library does not receive any E-rate funding. “The trustees and administration are more concerned about intellectual freedom than they are about the scarce dollars our library would be eligible for,” he said.

“Other libraries in areas with different economic circumstances may be offered much larger amounts of money for E-rate, and I understand they need to make different choices. Our amount would be small in any case,” Kirkpatrick added.

There are no filters on the computers in the Berne Public Library, said Petrosillo. There is an internet policy that informs parents that there are no filters.

The library in Berne receives a partial E-rate funding for its telephone line, Petrosillo said, adding, “Our internet was complimentary, but we just upgraded to a faster internet line that we are now paying for.” She is not sure if E-rate funding will cover that, since the amount of E-rate funding has been phasing out.

Hoadley, in Westerlo, said that her library receives E-rate funds for its telephone service but not its internet service, because it does not use any filters on its computers.

Graff in Rensselaerville says that that library is in its last year of E-rate funding and does not place any filters on its computers.

Corrected on Dec. 23, 2017: James LaRue’s comments on pornography and obscenity were changed to accurately reflect what he said. We had initially conflated the two.

Clarified on Dec. 27, 2017: The phrase “images of” was added to describe what the filters required for federal funds block. Text is not blocked.

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